Project Feed 1010 Partnership: Computer Science students tackle unpredictability of real-world advanced software development
This spring’s Advanced Software Development course wasn’t just a chance for Northeastern University graduate students to dive deep on the challenges of building something technically complex, it was an opportunity to take on the unpredictably of a real-world work project.
A partnership between the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) and Northeastern’s College of Computer and Information Science brought 19 students from the Boston and Seattle campuses together to work directly with researchers to build and deliver a software system – in just 3 months – for Project Feed 1010.
Students in Boston and Seattle meet virtually during a class session to share updates from their second development sprint.
“This project gave students the chance to really apply some of the knowledge they have acquired through their studies and build something that’s hopefully going to have some real impact,” said Dr. Ian Gorton, Director of Computer Science at Northeastern University-Seattle and Faculty lead behind the course.
The demands of a rising population mean serious innovation is needed in food production and water purification to keep pace. Enter Project Feed 1010, ISB’s aquaponics research initiative to catalyze a paradigm shift towards sustainable living and scale up sustainable agriculture.
“Between now and 2050 we have to produce as much food as has been produced since the beginning of civilization,” according to research shared by Project Feed 1010.
Aquaponics is a system that combines aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants in water) in a mutually beneficial environment that uses waste from fish to create a natural fertilizer for plants while also recycling and purifying the water.
In addition to pioneering research out of their South Lake Union facility, the PF1010 team also collaborates with a network of individual farmers and high-school science teachers across the country, whom run aquaponics systems in their classrooms. Key components to their mission include training and educating the future workforce in sustainable food production, optimizing food production systems through research and experimentation, and developing infrastructure to support the network.
That underlying infrastructure requires a platform for data management and networking applications, which is where Northeastern’s computer science and bioinformatics students were ready to contribute.
Students worked with Project Feed 1010 leadership to identify a core need to connect the high school classes and farmers around the globe conducting research and creating data from their aquaponics farming with a web-based system that could monitor, analyze and foster collaboration through social networking capabilities.
View the final developed product at https://pf1010.systemsbiology.net/
“When we first started this process, we wanted to run this collaboration as a startup, wanted students to be creative,” said Dr. Jake Valenzuela, Postdoctoral Fellow at ISB. Valenzuela said he was happy to see how well-thought out and foundational the project scope developed, leading to the creation of a really strong software framework that Project Feed 1010 can continue to build off of and scale moving forward. The start-up creativity also remained intact with a simulated light-meter mobile application included as a final deliverable.
“The unique thing about this project, is we had users,” said Dr. Gorton. “Users are great things, they terrify students, because it’s not just an assignment. It’s people who change their mind all the time. Often they don’t really understand the problem themselves to begin, and it has to be developed as the thinking emerges collectively.”
To create and execute a complex structure in the shortened time frame of an academic semester, the students broke up into four groups to divide the work: User Interface, Social, Data Analysis & Visualization, and Mobile Application.
The Northeastern students presented their finished product to the Aquaponics community at an April tech demo hosted by ISB.
Over the course of the semester Northeastern student & instructor logged 5,460 hours with 58.5 ISB personnel hours. Students met weekly with PF1010 personnel and stayed in constant communication via Piazza and through biweekly project summaries from team leads.
“Coming into this course, I was expecting to expand on my skills as a web developer, but what I got was so much more,” said Verena Chung, MS’16 Bioinformatics – Seattle. Chung lead the User Interface team, which was responsible for creating a straightforward design to incorporate data analytics, social components, and the mobile app. “It made me see what it would be like to work in the field as a professional. It wasn’t just me sitting at a desk for hours on end coding lines of code, I actually had to work with people, I had to talk to them, I had to explain why I approached tasks one way and not another.”
Jessica Day meets with students during an evening class at the Northeastern University-Seattle campus.
Jessica Day, Project Feed 1010 Program Coordinator, said one of the biggest challenges was how to best coordinate efforts between students and stakeholders located on two different coasts at Northeastern’s Seattle and Boston campus. Figuring out the right number of meetings per week and the project management tools for communicating in between were great learnings from the experience, she said.
Nisha Kanani, MS Computer Science, led the social team from Boston, developing the platform with Google authentication to allow aquaponics farmers to build a profile, create user groups, connect with classmates and fellow researchers.
Nisha Kanani presents on the social team’s experience from Boston.
“This project was really special. It helped me overcome a lot of intimidation in terms of using a new language, new database, talking to new people, or for that matter, even leading a team,” Kanani told tech demo attendees via video chat from Boston. “When we started this project none of us knew how things we’re going to work out or how we were going to get it done. It would not have possible without the teamwork. We hope everyone enjoys using this and it has a positive impact in the way all the potential users can collaborate, work and share knowledge.”
Data Analytics and Visualization
To manage their work the data analytics team split responsibilities between Boston and Seattle, with Boston students creating servers and data storage and Seattle students managing front-end development and interactive visualizations. The key to success was that both sides had to find a middle ground for passing data from the server to front end, said Brian Gillespie, MS Computer Science, a system that was tested in the second development sprint when the team had to create a new graph library in 24 hours to stay on track.
User at the tech demo tries the interactive Google mapping feature.
“I’m the kind of person that really believes if you want to learn something you have to get your hands dirty, you have to fail at it multiple times, and I think this course gave us all the chance to do just that,” said Gillespie. “This semester gave me a chance to do a lot of things I hadn’t done before, for instance, Java Script. We all pushed our limits and reached out to each other to make a good product that we can be proud of.”
Their agile workflow fostered great results as the team created a graphing system for measurement data, a Google mapping system for visualizing farms, tools for allowing users to measure their results against others in the network, and establish a restful API service, that will essentially let others use the data and database to build their own applications or analytics service, said Gillespie.
Light Meter Mobile App
The final piece of the project was designing and developing a mobile application that farmers could use on the go to record measurements and calculate light intensity through the phone’s camera.
Light meter demonstrated live at the tech demo in April.
“I wanted to do something that would not only stand out on my resume but also give me an opportunity to learn new code that would help my in tech industry,” said Preety Mishra, MS’16 Computer Science, who was in her final semester and lead the mobile app team. In addition to designing and developing an iOS app – an in-demand skill in today’s market – her team also took on the challenge of learning UI regression and automated testing for the website.
Both students and Project Feed personnel were effusive in their thanks to each other for the immeasurable learning experiences, outstanding final product and the exciting potential for future collaborations.
“The entire process of going from nothing 3 months ago to a working web application now was not completely smooth sailing, we ran into a lot of roadblocks, but overall we had a lot of fun,” said Verena Chung. “Not only did I improve skills in programming and debugging, I learned how to become a leader. I learned how to manage my time appropriately and prioritize my tasks. I also learned a lot about sustainable agriculture.”
Seattle graduate students with ISB’s Project Feed 1010 team at the April Tech Demo.